In May, a video went viral showing a Metro Transit police officer questioning a passenger, Ariel Vences-Lopez, on a light rail train about his immigration status. The video shows the officer asking “are you here illegally”, and asking if he has an ID.  The person filming the video is another passenger on the train and asks the officer “are you authorized to act as immigration police” and the officer responds “No, not necessarily.”

The answer is no, they should not ask about immigration status. The Metro Transit Police Department is a separate police body from Minneapolis or St. Paul Police. It is run by Chief John Harrington who said department policies make it clear that officers will not act as immigration officials 

Vences-Lopez was later hit with a Taser, arrested and booked into Hennepin County Jail.  Vences-Lopez is now facing deportation.

The officer was later fired for his wrongful actions, but that won’t undo the deportation of Vences-Lopez.  And it won’t undo the damage this officer has done to the relationship between police and immigrant communities. Police cannot effectively do their job when they do not have the trust of the people they serve.

Metro Transit claims that they did not report the immigration status of Vences-Lopez, nor did they even know he was transferred to ICE custody.  This incident should have never escalated this far in the first place, but unfortunately, it has. So the question is where do we go from here? Can anything be done to help Vences-Lopez and what can we to do prevent this from happening again? 

The Twin Cities claim to be sanctuary cities, but if they truly want to make it safer there is definitely more work to be done.  We have written about why police officers shouldn’t act as immigration officials and why they don’t need to. Now it’s time to step up and put more policies in place.

Here are a number of ways law enforcement and the county can fix their practices: 

  •  Don’t book immigrants into jail when it’s unnecessary. Vences-Lopez didn’t need to be booked into jail for misdemeanor charges.  He was charged with three misdemeanors, fare evasion, obstructing the duties of an officer and providing a false name. According to Minnesota law, if someone is cited for misdemeanor crimes, the person must be given a citation and released. They cannot be booked into jail unless “it reasonably appears: 1) the person must be detained to prevent bodily injury to that person or another; (2) further criminal conduct will occur; or (3) a substantial likelihood exists that the person will not respond to a citation. Because these are highly subjective criteria to ask the police to determine, police departments should establish clear guidance in place to encourage less custodial arrests. This would be better not only for immigrants but for everyone. Having an actual arrest creates substantially more collateral consequences than being ticketed and released. At this stage, the individual in question is presumed innocent. If an immigrant isn’t booked into jail then Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) won’t get a report that an immigrant was booked and being held. This would dramatically cut down on the number of people with whom ICE can easily come into contact.
  • Stop overcharging offenses. The use of excessive force in this instance and excessive charging is also incredibly problematic. There is no good explanation given as to why Vecnes-Lopez was hit with a Taser. This whole incident stemmed from not paying a fare on a light rail, yet somehow he was also charged with two additional offenses. The department later said they assumed he would serve no jail time and would likely plead those offenses. So why was he treated so aggressively in the first place? The force was unnecessary and the department should not be adding charges that will eventually disappear anyway. Overcharging is bad for everyone, not just immigrants. 
  • Don’t report National origin to ICE. When people are booked in jail they are asked for immigration status and country of origin. This information is unnecessary and it should be eliminated as a mandatory field in booking systems. While immigrants should be given the opportunity to contact their home country’s consulate office for assistance it doesn’t need to happen this way. Eliminating jail inquiries into immigration status and country of origin would give ICE a lot less information to work with and make it harder for them to figure out who is an immigrant and who isn’t.
  • Don’t report to ICE when an immigrant is about to be released from jail. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek (and all other county sheriffs) should not report to ICE when they are releasing someone they believe ICE is interested in. Hennepin County Sheriff Stanek has stated he generally notifies ICE 24 hours in advance of the release of people ICE is interested in.  Both the Hennepin & Ramsey County Sheriffs have said they will not hold people for ICE if the person would otherwise be released. However, we have seen instances where they release an individual but then notify ICE of the release, still giving ICE ample time to arrest the person on their own and start deportation proceedings.

Finally, what can be done to prevent Vences-Lopez’s deportation? Unfortunately, that is where we can have the least amount of control locally. Even if Vences-Lopez filed a lawsuit against the officer who mistreated him, that would not automatically stop his deportation. In order to reform how and when people are deported, we need to change Federal law.

Through the ACLU’s people power groups, Minnesota residents have been meeting with sheriffs and other officials to put pressure on them to change their practices, but you can too. Call your local county sheriff (who oversees the jail) and ask them to change their practices to protect the immigrants in our community.

To find out more about how to join the ACLU’s people power movement go here.